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'Waking the Dead': An Affair of the Spirit

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2000


    'Waking the Dead' Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly in "Waking the Dead." (Gramercy Pictures)
As the kid said, "I see dead people." And in that he's not alone. The truth is we all see dead people--without benefit of a sixth sense. The late John Wayne is on TV hawking brewskis; Fred Astaire's after-death dance partner is a vacuum cleaner. And, God knows, Elvis won't stay dead.

Is it any wonder that many recent movies concern themselves with interaction between the quick and the dead? "The Sixth Sense," "American Beauty"--and now "Waking the Dead," the latest example of the genre Cinema DOA: Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), one of the two main characters of this fascinating film, is dead before the credits roll. And she knows it, but her former lover, Fielding (Billy Crudup), isn't so sure anymore.

Adapted from Scott Spencer's 1986 novel, this wonderfully acted romance brings the touching fantasy "Truly, Madly, Deeply" to mind. Like that 1991 film, this more sober one deals with overcoming bereavement and finally moving on, which is quite literally contingent on giving up the ghost.

Crudup plays Fielding, a blue-collar kid reared to become a politician. Handpicked to run for a congressional seat in the '80s, he is on the brink of achieving his and his father's goal when he becomes consumed by memories of, then visions of, the soul mate he buried 10 years earlier.

We revisit the couple's first meeting in 1970. Though he's a straight-shooting young Coast Guard officer and she's a rabble-rousing activist, they fall passionately in love. But after two years of bliss, their political differences are already casting doubt on their future happiness. He's always at odds with her scruffy, fervently idealistic friends, and she proves a liability to his political career.

Fielding now lives with the perfect political partner, Juliet (Molly Parker), the elegant and assured niece of his mentor (Hal Holbrook). When Sarah begins to haunt him, Fielding gradually realizes that he is only using Juliet and that their cool relationship is but one of the compromises he's made in pursuit of his goal.

As the demands of the campaign become more overwhelming, Fielding's visions become so realistic that he begins to suspect that Sarah is really still alive. But then it really doesn't matter as long as she's accomplished her goal of guiding Fielding back to the light.

Connelly, Crudup's co-star in the 1997 film "Inventing the Abbotts," personifies first the naivete of the bell-bottomed boomers and later, in the afterlife, the gentle concern of a guardian angel. Crudup succeeds at the more difficult task of demonstrating the passion of youth, followed by dawning disillusionment, anguish and finally a renewed faith in the difference one man can make.

Keith Gordon, who previously directed the somber 1996 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's "Mother Night," is a master of neither pace nor structure, but he invests his work with social conscience, avoids the obvious and isn't the least bit embarrassed by his deep affection for the human spirit, no matter the condition of the vessel.

WAKING THE DEAD (103 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language and sexual situations.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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